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UKIP: Britain's winning ticket in Europe?

On Thursday the EU Parliament elections start in Great Britain. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has gained popularity in Britain with its rhetoric on Europe and the freedom of movement.

UKIP surged forward on a wave of anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment in last year's local elections, growing faster than any contender to Britain's three mainstream parties since WW2.

"We're the only party that actually is patriotic, the other parties aren't patriotic because they've been selling our sovereignty out to the European Union," claimed UKIP's John Bickley. He recently came second in parliamentary by-elections in the Manchester suburb of Wythenshaw - pushing the Conservative candidate into third place.

"Only UKIP is actually saying we want to represent the British people, and to do that we have to be fully sovereign. And that means we can't be part of the EU. The EU wants to be the United States of Europe, and it certainly isn't in the interest of the British people to be part of something which ends up looking like the USSR potentially," Bickley told DW.

UKIP's John Bickley pushed the Conservative candidate into third place in a recent by-election in the North of England.

"We are the only patriotic party" claims UKIP candidate John Bickley.

UKIP to 'clean up' in European elections

Founded in 1993, UKIP has largely been a one-issue party; working to get Britain out of the EU. It holds nine out of the UK's 73 seats in the European Parliament, but without a broader political platform and grass-roots organization, UKIP has failed to win seats in the British parliament at Westminster.

"The extent to which UKIP are going to take seats in the European elections is undoubted," Andy Mycock, a political scientist at the University of Huddersfield told DW.

"They are probably going to clean up, to put it crudely, because of a general disaffection with the European Parliament and this notion that Europe is somehow restraining British freedom."

There is wide-spread anti-EU sentiment both within the British electorate and in parts of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party. UKIP's success is seen by many as one of the reasons Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership should he win next year's general elections.

"UKIP is making the mainstream parties [sit up and] think about some of the key issues around immigration, around Europe, and around particularly the idea of what British society constitutes," said Andy Mycock.

Anti-immigration

There has long been a ground-swell of public opposition in the UK to freedom of movement within the EU. Even though the country's economy is showing signs of healthy growth after the recession and unemployment is falling, many still see new labor migrants from Romania and Bulgaria as a threat to jobs at home.

"Immigration - stop it. There's no work in this country, so you take care of your own first. Immigration must stop," one of UKIP's voters in the Wythenshaw by-election told DW. This fear, combined with a fear of a loss of “British identity," is fast becoming UKIP's main focus along with their anti-EU stance.

Dr Rob Ford, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University who is writing a book about UKIP

UKIP fans British nostalgia thinks Dr Rob Ford.

"There's a sort of strong nostalgia element to the arguments that UKIP will make, that Britain was better back in the 1950s and 60s - before the EU, before immigration, before all these socially progressive values came in," said Dr Rob Ford, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University who is currently writing a book about UKIP.

"They'd like to get back to more traditional values, and a somewhat sepia-toned vision of Britain - because that Britain of course never really existed. But in the mind of the voters it kind of symbolizes the decline that's happened since."

Last month, UKIP's party leader, Nigel Farage, told the party's spring congress the greatest threat to Britain was what he perceived to be the country's inability to control immigration.

"We face the prospect of the largest migratory wave that has ever come to this country, and we have three political parties who are not prepared to do anything about it," Farage told the party delegates.

"If you believe that we should govern our borders, if you believe that we should control immigration, if you believe we should have a sensible immigration policy where we have not just quantity control but quality control as well, if you believe we should model our immigration system along the lines of a country like Australia - then vote UKIP on May the 22nd," he said.

European far-right 'too radical'

Many commentators compare UKIP to other right-wing European parties because of their opposition to immigration and the EU. Yet the party has been careful not to form official allegiances in Brussels which would paint them in too radical a light, thinks Dr Rob Ford.

A bumper sticker for UKIP in the UK

Could UKIP's standing in domestic elections improve off the back of predicted EU success?

"They have no shortage of courtiers. [Marine] Le Pen and [Geert] Wilders have both been courting Farage very heavily, looking for alliances ahead of what are expected to be a strong set of results generally for the radical right in Europe. They'd like to maximize their leverage in the European Parliament.

"However, at the moment UKIP are standing apart from all that. I think because they fear an alliance with some of these more anti-immigration identity-based radical right parties will damage their appeal domestically. So at the moment they're really avoiding any kind of alliance like that."

Nigel Farage and his UKIP party are expected to return at least as many MEPs in May's European elections as they already have. Their success in Europe might seem contradictory, given their anti-EU stance, but their seats in Brussels have been won on a promise to argue the case for Britain leaving the Union from the very heart of EU power - changing the system from within if you like.

For now, though, it seems too early to tell whether their anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-immigration ticket will win them seats in Westminster next year too. Whatever their eventual result on the domestic front, however, their power and success in Europe and in UK by-elections is providing a new dynamic to traditional power politics in the UK as the big three fight to make sure not more of their traditional electorate are tempted down the UKIP road in the future.


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